A year ago, it would have been a surreal, fantastical, dream, but on Friday the CVS in downtown DC I walked into to pick up some Diet Coke and shampoo had a sign at the entrance that read “Covid-19 vaccines available, no appointment necessary.” The place was deserted – the sign might as well have announced a discount on the soda I was buying.
Next day, same story at a suburban mall in Maryland – vaccines being peddled with few takers.
It’s going to come down to the wire, but the United States may no longer be able to meet President Biden’s goal of having 70% of the country at least partially vaccinated by the July 4 holiday. But the intriguing plot twist here is that it will not have been the scientific community, corporations, or the government who will have dropped the ball. It will have been the rest of us, the public on whose behalf the massive vaccine campaigns have been launched.
The daily US rate of vaccination peaked in mid-April at 3.4 million, and has since plummeted by more than two-thirds, even though only 54% of all adults nationwide have been vaccinated.
The slowdown is attributable to a number of factors. Those most determined to get a vaccine (myself included) rushed to do so at the earliest moment they could. The government suspended the popular one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for 10 days in mid-April when vaccines were surging on account of a handful of damaging side-effect cases. A solid third or so of the population was skeptical or hostile to the vaccine all along. Many Republican governors and state legislatures stoked anti-vaccine sentiment, passing laws against vaccine passports or requirements. And, of course, there is a paradox in the very success of the vaccine: as more people get their shots, the number and severity of new Covid-19 cases have declined steadily, making those reluctant to get a vaccine feel even less urgency to do so (giving Covid-19 some breathing room to stick around further).
Again, in what would have been a surreal and fantastical dream a year ago, governments and public health officials across the United States are having to devise any number of gimmicks, incentives, and prizes to lure people to roll up their sleeves and accept this scientific and medical gift. Beers, frisbees, rock concerts, t-shirts, ice cream, hot dogs, marijuana, a ticket to win a million bucks… the carrots deployed to get people vaccinated amount to a veritable catalogue of Americana.
It’s all so disappointing, this lack of gratitude and appreciation for what a year ago (when some experts were saying it could take 3 or 4 years to get a vaccine developed, if all went well) we would have considered a miracle. The lack of education and common sense to rely on our best available scientific expertise. The lack of solidarity to do what is right by your fellow citizens, by getting vaccinated to protect others by impeding the progress of the virus, regardless of your sense of your own immune system or risk tolerance.
All of us (especially those of us driven to write political columns) are prone to complaining that we don’t have the political leaders/corporations/laws we deserve as a people. But I must grudgingly concede that pandemic politics (the idiotic mask debates and now this) suggest we aren’t the people our nation deserves. And in plenty of places, we are electing leaders who reflect our failings, but it is becoming harder and harder to blame them for their policies, instead of seeing in them our own collective reflection.
These are toxic times of political polarization and cultural nihilism and nastiness. It’s astonishing we can’t come together in appreciation and awe for the fact that we have developed and deployed effective Covid-19 vaccines this fast. Instead, we just make this the next battleground for nonsensical fighting and recrimination. If we go on like this for a few more years, the next generation of Americans will not inherit a nation capable of such feats.
The most tragic aspect of the lack of universal vaccine appreciation is that it also blinds Americans to the suffering elsewhere in the world, and to our blessings and privilege. Idiotically resisting vaccines in the American South on crazed political grounds keeps people from worrying about alarmingly low rates of vaccination to date across the global South.
Reflecting its middle-income economic status, Mexico’s vaccination rate to date (some 20% partially vaccinated) lags significantly behind rates in countries like the US and Great Britain, but is well ahead of the world’s poorest nations.
The inequities in access and distribution of vaccines worldwide have been a grim reminder that human nature and nationalist self-interest will survive any global calamity. But the good news is that as supply and production have expanded, rich nations are belatedly starting to do the right thing, as we saw with President Biden’s announcement earlier this month that the US will purchase an additional 500 million vaccines to donate to countries in need.
Let’s hope there are more people elsewhere than there are here who will appreciate this miraculous achievement.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz